Do Sales Managers Discriminate When Hiring Reps for “Cultural Fit?”

Surveys have found that 82% of managers worldwide consider culture fit one of their top priorities when hiring people. That matches my own experiences, leading me to this question: do sales managers unknowingly discriminate when hiring reps for culture fit?

So I was intrigued when I recently read an article by Lauren Rivera, professor of Management & Organizations at Northwestern/Kellogg, in which she states that the way most managers use cultural fit in hiring runs the risk of discriminating against job candidates from diverse backgrounds.

Rivera, a professor at Northwestern University and author of Pedigree, admits that hiring for cultural fit, when done well, can boost retention and productivity.

But most organizations do it badly, Rivera says. The problem is that the vast majority of sales managers don’t know, or can’t define, what culture fit is. So instead they end up trying to clone themselves—which leads to unintentional discrimination and bias in hiring salespeople.

Subconsciously, culture fit for such managers becomes a test of whether the candidate is a personal and social fit with a job—rather than an analysis of the candidate’s job-relevant performance capabilities and ambitions for the future.

It’s as if cultural fit becomes a big bucket into which many sales managers throw all of their personal preferences.

The Fix

Studies show that most managers make our “yes” or “no” decision about moving forward with a candidate within the first 90 seconds of an interview. This is a well-known term in psychology that describes the human tendency to rely too heavily on, or “anchor,” on one trait or piece of information when making decisions. We must resist this tendency and focus more on performance and skills, not whether or not we “click” with the candidate.

First, clearly define what “Culture Fit” means at your company. Recently I was working with a team of sales managers at a client company and we developed a description of culture fit that included the five attributes listed below.

  • Entrepreneurial spirit is a mindset. It’s an attitude and approach to thinking that actively seeks out change, rather than waiting to adapt to change. It’s a mindset that embraces critical questioning, innovation, service and continuous improvement.
  • A strong team player works for a common agenda and does not have an individual, hidden agenda. They work for the common goal and are not led by personal interests. A good team player supports others – they care about how the team is doing and want to contribute to the common success. A good team player is reliable.
  • Goal-oriented means someone who is focused on reaching a specific objective or accomplishing a given task; driven by purpose.
  • Accountability refers to an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for one’s actions. … When individuals are accountable, they understand and accept the consequences of their actions for the areas in which they assume responsibility.
  • Work Hard, Play Hard is a commonly-used phrase in many organizations. People use it to describe their WorkLife balance, and how the work ethic applied to one’s job allows them to enjoy their passions outside of the day-to-day grind of business development.

We converted the preceding attributes into a tool with a 1-5 score for each manager to use when rating a sales candidate.

If you think a candidate is not a good culture fit, spend some time being introspective before you reject the candidate. Ask yourself why you think the person won’t fit in. If your reasons are a gut-feel about whether or not a candidate will fit socially with your team – that’s not good. Make sure you’re not allowing your personal preferences to cloud your hiring decision.

However, if you think the person won’t fit in because of job-related issues, then fine. For my client who is now using the five attributes listed above to evaluate a candidate’s cultural fit, that now includes rejecting a candidate who:

  • Resists change
  • Doesn’t support others
  • Lacks passion to achieve their sales goals
  • Always blames external factors for missing their quota

That is definitely a person that I wouldn’t want on my sales team, and you wouldn’t either.

Hiring salespeople is one of many competencies that sales managers need to develop in order to be successful. To learn about other sales management competencies, download my FREE whitepaper, Holistic Competencies Vital for Successful Sales Management.


Kevin Davis

Kevin F. Davis is the author of The Sales Manager’s Guide to Greatness”, which was named the 2018 Axiom Business Book Award Winner, Silver Medal. Kevin is also the author of Slow Down, Sell Faster!”.